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The Law of Atonement

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sermon for Palm Sunday (Mattins)

Are you old enough to remember Lee Majors in The Fall Guy? The title of that programme is a bit of a pun. It is supposed to refer to the fact that Lee Majors is a stunt man using his skills to fight crime. His skill is knowing how to fall, hence the title. Of course, this is a play on the notion of a fall guy as someone who takes a punishment for someone else. A fall guy is a whipping boy or a scapegoat.

As a boy, King Charles I is said to have had a whipping boy – the first Earl of Dysart! – who was punished for the little prince’s misbehaviour. Have you taken the rap for someone else’s crimes? How does that feel? Does it make it right to punish the innocent in order to atone for the sins of the guilty?


The prophet Isaiah seems to be suggesting that Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to be punished for our sakes.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
God lays upon His Son the iniquity, the sins of us all. All that we have done amiss; every single time we have disobeyed God; every time we have failed to love the Lord Our God with all our hearts, minds and strength; every time we have failed to love our neighbour as ourselves; each one of these causes Our Lord to receive bruises. All this is prefigured in the system of sacrifices that God gives to the Hebrews. According to the Law of the Old Testament, In order to be reconciled with God, you have to make sacrifice of two goats: one is a sin offering which is killed in the temple; the other is cast away into the wilderness bearing your transgressions. Aaron the priest has to do this for all of Israel on the Day of Atonement. The sins of all Israel are laid upon the scapegoat. If Jesus is the scapegoat for all humanity, how dreadful God must be to punish His innocent Son on behalf of sinful human beings! Why can’t God just pardon human beings of their sins, or punish us for our sins? Why do we have to see the dreadful spectacle of an innocent man dangling on the cross just to appease a petty, punishing deity who can’t let sins go?

The trouble is that we think too much in terms of crime and punishment. The only way that we human beings can deal with Sin and Evil is to bring things into the law courts. We see murderers convicted; we see burglars sent to gaol; we see person who has caused the injury pay the costs. What we don’t see is the actual sin being dealt with. The murder case may be ended, but someone is still dead; a family is still mourning; people are still scarred and weakened by this sin. It may be because of the murder of his father that a son is so scarred that he commits murder himself. The Law does nothing about Evil, it just sort of tries to shut it away. But Evil still lies lurking behind the prison door, waiting to climb out! It spreads, oozing out from under the prison door no matter how tightly we shut it. Something needs to be done to tackle Evil itself.


Evil is an absence of Good. It is a hole that needs to be filled. If human nature is damaged by Evil, then it will take a human being undamaged by Evil to destroy it. But this is beyond our capability, because we are all damaged. It can only take one who is truly Good – truly God – to heal us from Evil. Our Saviour has to be truly human and truly God. It has to be Jesus.


As we watch Our Lord go to His crucifixion this week, we see One Who has chosen to bear all of our sins in His own body on the tree so that Evil may be stopped in Him and that, in Him, our humanity might be restored. Further, in suffering so much, He demonstrates God’s love for us in our sufferings at the hands of Evil. As He suffers, He gives all our grief, our pain our suffering dignity and worth in the eyes of God. In His terrible death, all our tragedies are given a deeper joy and a hope of Resurrection.

This is no petty punishing God! This is a God who cannot stand the slightest drop of Evil. And He would rather die than allow His little ones to be infected with it forever.

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